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What a Juárez gym tells us about a world permanently altered by this pandemic

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CIUDAD JUAREZ — The sounds in the gym are like those you’d hear anywhere. The instructor of the class shouts directions and encouragement and counts reps out loud. The 15 people arranged in a circle around her say little as they pant and groan with the effort of the workout. Weights thud dully to the floor as they finish a set and sigh in relief. 

But this gym does not look like any you’ve seen. These are pandemic times. The fitness instructor here is the only person who is not isolated in an individual plastic cubicle for the duration of the workout. 

Video by Corrie Boudreaux

David Rojas opened this gym, called Challenge Fitness, in Ciudad Juárez in 2014. He was getting ready to do some renovations and expansions that involved the purchase of old railroad cars when his business was closed in the spring along with nearly everything else in the city. The railroad cars are still waiting in a lot adjacent to the gym, but Rojas decided that he and his business and employees could not wait any more. 

“What I thought of was to make individual pods, exercising pods, where our clients could just go in there and they could start working out,” Rojas said. “We prepare those pods with every necessity from dumbbells to any kind of exercise equipment they might need.”

His innovation consists of individual cubicles that are completely wrapped in plastic and stocked with exercise equipment. The pods are constructed along the perimeter of the gym’s formerly open space and face inward toward each other, while slits in the plastic at the rear of each pod allow for entry and exit. 

“I’ve had a really good response,” Rojas said. “Right now, we have full classes almost every single day. At the beginning, you can say, people are still frightened of the situation, they might be afraid of actually coming into a gym and stuff like that. But once they start to see our security and hygiene controls, they start to have a little bit more confidence in what we are doing.” 

Before entering the building, gym-goers step through a tray of disinfectant to sanitize their shoes. An employee checks clients’ temperature with a forehead scan. If cleared through the temperature check, they are sent immediately to wash their hands before beginning the workout. 

Each person enters a cubicle and the instructor stands in the center to lead exercises and counts. It is hot inside the facility – there’s no central air, though each cubicle has a small fan mounted inside. The workout is over after about 45 minutes, and cubicles are disinfected before the next group of clients enters the building. 

An instructor at Challenge Fitness in Juárez circulates in front of the individual pods where clients work out while socially distancing. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

As with the other signs of the reopening economies and public spaces in both Juárez and El Paso, the juxtaposition of the normal – people going to work out at a gym – and the abnormal – shoe sanitizing, temperature checks, and plastic cubicles — is jarring. 

Lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina

It throws me back to my life in Louisiana and to the weeks after Hurricane Katrina. We expected a bad storm, but we did not expect the utter devastation that the broken levees and flooding unleashed on New Orleans. 

What once again surprises me, looking back, is how long it took for us to realize and to accept that everything in our world had changed irrevocably. My grandparents, who for my entire life lived an easy drive away, never returned and spent the next 12 years in Colorado until they passed away. 

I taught at a boys’ high school that, when we reopened that October, had a morning shift for its regular students and an afternoon shift for other students whose schools no longer existed. We spent the year starting classes before dawn, my students eating MREs at their desks. 

We got used to the sound of helicopters flying overhead, to lining up in Target parking lots for the National Guard’s ice distribution, to the rough hum of generators and the stench of rotting food as people returned and started cleaning out their refrigerators. And in all that, my family and I were lucky because we did not know anyone who had drowned in the flood. 

My daughter, who was born just weeks before the hurricane and didn’t get a birth certificate for nearly a year after the flooding, is almost 15. Time remains divided on the Gulf Coast: There is a before and after. In Louisiana, we still talk about history and events and customs and sports and families and neighbors and stores this way: How it was, and how it is; what existed, and what exists. 

A new normal that’s totally abnormal

This pandemic is creating a similar split in time.

When businesses and schools and churches began to hang signs to announce that things were back to normal, the very fact it was announced or advertised was decidedly not normal. Stores are supposed to be open. They’re not supposed to have signs in their windows that say “You can come in now!” Friends are supposed to hug. They are not supposed to bump elbows. People are supposed to work out at gyms. They are not supposed to stand in individual pods sealed in plastic wrap. 

David Rojas, owner of Challenge Fitness in Juárez, explains the sanitization and social-distancing measures he has implemented for his clients. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In March, when the pandemic began in earnest here, it seemed that we would spend a few weeks living our lives online and then everything would go back to normal. The longer the pandemic goes on, the more it becomes apparent that we are on the brink of a divide in our timeline. 

This has become even more evident in recent weeks in Texas, where the state and local timelines for reopening have been postponed or even reversed as our “return to normal” seems to have brought on new records in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. 

It seems more and more likely that five years from now, or 15 years from now, we will tell our stories of how things used to be before the pandemic. The pandemic will be our reference point for marking the events in our lives.

“I moved to El Paso just before the pandemic.”

“We didn’t meet until after the pandemic.”

“My uncle died in the pandemic.”

“Remember how we used to shake strangers’ hands before the pandemic? How quaint!”

Perhaps we can no longer wait for things to be “back” the way they were. 

“There’s a saying that it’s not the most intelligent or the strongest that are going to survive, it’s the most agile to evolve that will survive,” Rojas said. His gym is an example of this drive to re-invent ourselves rather than expect a return to the past.  Instead, we must look ahead and search for ways to adapt.

Cover photo: An instructor at Challenge Fitness in Juarez demonstrates the proper technique for an exercise while clients follow along inside their individual cubicles. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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Corrie Boudreaux

Corrie Boudreaux is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at UTEP and a freelance photojournalist in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region. She specializes in photography as a tool to explore insecurity, violence, and trauma; spatial environments; and memorialization practices. Her academic work has been published in Social Research, The Latin Americanist, and H-ART: Revista de historia, teoría y crítica de arte.

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